Prison Diary, Part 5

Life's a bitch, and sometimes you get put in jail for it. AVN Senior Editor Mark Kernes recalls his incarceration.

 This is the fifth and final part of my prison diary. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here. Part 4 can be found here.


Another late arrival was Jacques L., a world traveler and expatriate Frenchman, who didn't want me to use his real name if I ever got this published. (Too bad, Jacques!) Jacques was ... you guessed it ... another cocaine smuggler. This scam was worked through a major fashion importer in New York's garment district, but I didn't get the details. I liked Jacques, but I didn't have him for a cubie. Ira did, and it wasn't long before they weren't talking. Or rather, Jacques talked incessantly, and Ira just stopped listening. Incessant talking was just one of the many ways people showed their nervousness about being in prison, and for most, it was their first time. Few repeaters made it to Allenwood.

About this time, I was beginning to become friendly with more of Ira's prison buddies. Ira had been there since the previous May, and had developed quite a circle of friends. We'd all try to get together on Friday nights to play Trivial Pursuit. Ira would usually team up with Ron L., an ex-banker, or Herb M., an ex-stockbroker (I think) who also owned the game board. (Yes, one could even buy games through the Commissary.) I would team with Jacques or another of our coterie. It wasn't unusual to have 4 teams competing. I got to be considered quite a whiz at everything except sports questions. The main ways to pass the time were reading, pinochle, bridge (which. I played a fair amount of) or watching TV. Unfortunately, the guy who scheduled the TV shows liked such things as Highway To Heaven and Dallas, so I rarely watched. (I recall one incident, however, where an HBO movie was scheduled, and it actually had some nudity in it! The show was due to end about half an hour after lights out, so we begged the guards to let us stay up and watch it all the way through, and for once, they actually did. It was a small victory ... but of the sort we relished.)

I probably should mention a subject that nearly everyone associates with prisons: Homosexuality. Although I was only in Allenwood for 11 weeks, I saw no evidence of guys making it with guys. For one thing, it's not easy finding privacy in a prison, and even in a minimum security facility, it isn't any easier. Given the choice, I would not shower with other men - probably due to some latent homosexual panic - but finding the dorm's 6-person shower stall unoccupied was a rarity, and there was no way to prevent anyone from coming in. So, my assumption is that liaisons in the showers didn't happen. I suppose, while the weather was warm, guys might make it outside somewhere, but they would always run the risk of being caught and charged with homosexuality, a shot offense. And it would be silly to try anything in the dorm itself. Although the rest of us wouldn't inform on anyone, a guard might wander by and then all hell would break loose.

But this lack of privacy also made it difficult to masturbate, which is a convict's only other possible sexual release in prison. This activity was pretty much limited to the showers or in bed at night when everyone else was asleep. I did it in both places. And there was no shortage of pornography to stimulate. Playboy, Penthouse and a couple of other magazines were available at the Commissary, although Wendy did send back one issue of Hustler which she felt was in really bad taste - some sort of bondage Christmas wreath on the cover - and one could apparently receive "men's magazines" in the mails, including Screw, a very hardcore publication. After I got out, I sent one of the guys a bunch of cut-cover men's mags just to increase the supply.

But jacking off is just another way to get through the day, another thing most guys could use to push their circumstances to a back corner of their minds. Being in prison, even one without obvious bars, and even with a few amenities that one doesn't usually associate with being in jail, is a bitch. Want to get a soda from the fridge in the middle of the night? Forget it. Decide on the spur of the moment to take in a new movie? Sure, fella; that'll be 5 extra years for trying to escape. It was even tougher on the married guys, and the ones with girlfriends back home. Allenwood is a long way from any large city - it was a good 3 or 4 hours from Philly or New York - and it takes a lot of caring for people to find the time and energy to make the trip. After being there for 6 weeks, and having felt the loneliness of sleep deprivation with no decent company around, I couldn't imagine what it was like for guys with sentences of even a year, much less the 3 and 7 year sentences I'd heard about. (The longest sentence at Allenwood was 15 years. I think the recipient was another drug smuggler. He spent all of his free time in the gym, lifting weights.)

I eventually learned that each prisoner develops patterns of behavior and thinking that lets him get through it all. For one thing, you ignore where you are. You put up pictures, read the most recent magazines you can find - some guys even had newspaper subscriptions - and you behave as if taking orders from assholes is your chosen way of life. You can speak briefly to those outside, and write letters, but what you're really thinking is that it's as if you're in a Communist country and you must steal what little freedom you can get. You're allowed one embrace on arriving for a visit, one as your visitors depart, and you're strip-searched after it's over. It's a very day-to-day experience ... worse because you're trying to ignore the passage of days. The feeling of helplessness grows, and can easily overwhelm you if you let it. I found that it was important not to think in terms of how much time I had left. I avoided that pitfall until the last week, when I felt as if I'd taken massive amounts of caffeine, and by the last 2 days, I was gritting my teeth and counting hours. Some guys with very long sentences set goals to be reached - "I made it through this year" - but the pressure on them was obvious. The most conspicuous trade-off I saw was the sacrifice of quality companionship for just plain old somebody to talk to ... even if the talkers were on entirely different intellectual planes. Among the reasonably sane, there were hardly any enemies. I think, subconsciously, people like Ira felt that the environment was just too close-knit to allow room enough to really hate another convict. So, even though he wasn't on speaking terms with his cubie, he refused to let an intellectual dislike degenerate into an emotional confrontation.

But on a deeper level, I think a lot of these guys realized the true nature of the fix they were in. Bordello operators like Ira were hardly stupid enough to think that, in the large view, they'd done anything wrong. No sane person would refuse another person the right to rent out her (or even his, I suppose) body if that's what the person wanted to do. Ira and Bill simply gathered these women to a central location ... and treated them much better than their so-called boyfriends. Retirement accounts, I suspect, are unusual among prostitutes. The same logic holds true for the drug dealers. It should be clear to anyone without a financial interest in "drug rehabilitation" that the main problem with drugs are the laws against them. A heroin addict who has an adequate supply of heroin behaves pretty much like anyone else, as the British have proved for several years now. There, one's daily fix costs only a few cents, and the addicts have no reason to commit crimes to buy it. And, of course, there's no excuse for laws against psychedelics.

And then there are the cases like Harry, in jail for accepting a vacation.

The point is, most of the people in Allenwood had no business being there. Their "crimes" harmed no-one, but usually avoided giving income to the government ... and the government doesn't like that. Deep down, the more intelligent convicts feel that contradiction, and the underlying battle of reason against regulation drives them crazy. 

I spent a lot of time letter-writing during the last 2 weeks, mostly trying to preserve notes I'd taken about life in prison, and conclusions I'd drawn about this and that. I also mailed out every worthwhile piece of paper they'd given me, on the off-chance they wouldn't let me take it out when I went. Out-going mail was rarely censored or looked at, though incoming always was, and I suspected they'd search us and our belongings before letting us go. I was already starting to get nervous. It was not unlike the feeling I had on my return from the World Science-Fiction Convention, Seacon '79, in Brighton, England; as the plane approached New York, my paranoia that it was going to crash increased. Likewise, on the drive home from Allenwood, I kept expecting to be stopped and hauled back. No reason for it; just leftover fear.

Also during the last few days came the event that insured I would write an article of this sort. I'd been talking to Ron L., one of the dorm's financial wizards - he and some of the other guys would sit around, thinking up ways to get around certain government business regulations - and he mentioned to me that he did bookkeeping down in Industry. Almost as an aside, he told me that Industry brought in so much money selling its convict-made desks, chairs and cabinets, that their profits alone paid for every nickel it cost to keep all 560-odd inmates in Allenwood! Let the implications of that sink in for a moment. I'll wait ...

What that means is that a federal judge no longer has to think about whether his imprisoning somebody like me might be a financial drain on an already-overspent government. It no longer makes any difference, as the judge is considering possible sentences, whether he lets me go or puts me in; the cost is the same, and he doesn't have to worry about whether it will affect that raise next year. It means that when he comes across somebody whose opinions he doesn't like - mine or Bob's or Milt's - even though none of us would cause harm to anyone if we were just given probation, he can afford to lock us up for a time because he doesn't want us spouting our heretical dogma to an unsuspecting public. Bob was right: Our cases weren't tax cases; they were First Amendment cases. It wasn't the money they wanted; it was the obedience. It's the reason that one of the guys who was arrested for drunk driving in the District of Columbia was carted all the way to northern Pennsylvania for 6 months: It just doesn't matter ... to them! (This was quite a decent fellow, incidentally, who originally came from Tucson, Arizona, and since I'd spent some time there years back, we spent several hours trying to remember landmarks and fun places.)

Getting the true story on the financial aspect of the place was depressing ... and one I wanted backed up with facts, which I asked Ron to photocopy for me from Industry's records. But there just wasn't enough time before I got out.

What there was enough time for was doing something I'd heard about for years, but never thought I would be in a position to try: I got stoned in jail. One of the guys I'd gotten to be good friends with had mentioned that he had a small stash of marijuana that had been smuggled in - (Contraband was usually left concealed just outside one of the fences, and inmates would sneak out after lights out and pick it up. Some were caught but I think most got through) - and he asked me if I'd like to step outside and toke up. I was a little nervous about it, but I said, "Sure."

So, just after dark one night, we decided to take a stroll on the road in back of the dorm - just for the exercise, you understand - and we lit a joint. I can't really tell how good the stuff was, but/because after having been away from it for 2 months, my lungs were ready! I got quite blasted ... and would therefore hesitate to do such a thing again. Consider the environment: When 9 o'clock count rolled around, I had to be back in the dorm ... and who should step over to my cube but Pito, wanting to borrow a Playboy or something. The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was deal with anybody else, but there was no way around it. And the more I subtly tried to get rid of him, the more sure I became that I had been "pinned." Fortunately, Pito and I were on reasonably good terms, but I quickly came to the realization that prison was just the wrong setting, no matter how I looked at it. I can no longer give credence to the rumors I'd heard during the '60s of people taking acid that had been smuggled to them in prison. I haven't had too many bad trips in my time, but a trip in prison would certainly have been one of them.

Toward the very end of my sentence, things moved quickly, what with more paperwork to fill out, good clothing to give away, addresses to get and goodbyes to be said (with promises to write soon). I was removed from my clerk's job by Wednesday, but I was so bored that I went down there to hang out anyway - a no-no, but they weren't likely to do anything about it. Besides, Jack okayed it. With only Harry to handle the receivers and Joe to hinder him, Jack needed all the help he could get. I'd gained a certain amount of respect for Jack, Tim and Wendy, as well as a few others in authority. If one left aside the realization that they were lackeys of a corrupt regime, they could be dealt with rationally.

Finally, the big day arrived. I'd asked my parents to get there as early in the morning as they possibly could, although I didn't know how long final processing would take. For some reason, the thing that took the longest was getting an accounting of what was left over in my Commissary account: 17 cents, as I recall. I'd splurged and bought goodies for a going-away party the night before. That last day was the only time they'd made us march single-file for anything. I still can't figure out why, unless it was a last reminder of where we were and where we wouldn't like to return. I had a couple of boxes to take out with me: A few papers I'd forgotten to send home, letters I'd received, and a bunch of comicbooks from my pal in the biz, Lynn, plus a couple of books and magazines I'd accumulated. It was pretty hard to stay in line with all that stuff, but I managed. I had to. I found that my pace quickened automatically as soon as I was out the door, and I felt as if I were being watched all the way home. Leftover paranoia, which took a few days to go away, and then returned just before my first meeting with my probation officer ... but what happened after I got out is another story, and not as interesting to tell right now.

I wish I could say that I'd learned some major lesson from my 78 day stay, courtesy of the government, but all I learned were a few new facts. The lessons had been learned during the previous 15 years - which had required unlearning a few from my youth - but being in prison has given me a new perspective on the power available to those in power, be they judges or IRS agents or attorneys or politicians in general. I knew it before ... but I didn't feel it before. When you're locked up where you can't escape, whether it's in an amusement park or a zoo, or even a "country club," as some Watergate alumni have been known to refer to Allenwood, something clicks in the back of your head. Some get over it once they're released. Some just try to forget it, with varying degrees of success. Some learn from it ... but too often not the right lessons. No matter how you look at it, it's a bitch ... but, to paraphrase a relatively unknown author, "Jail teaches you lessons available at no other price." And since it's no longer unusual for white, middle-class American youth to spend a few months in the slammer, I hope this article will stand you in good stead.


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